This article was written for my Magazine Writing course
You wake up the day after a workout (it’s been awhile), and you want to die. Your muscles ache, and your chest still has the breathless feeling that you felt while on the treadmill yesterday. Your first inclination is to crawl back under the covers and rest, but that may not be the best option.
Active recovery is what you should be doing. And active does not mean going back under the covers; it means getting your blood flowing, and yes, it means moving.
You often see people stretching before their workouts, but the need to do so is a common misconception. After a workout is when stretching actually becomes important.
Following a workout, your muscles are tight and contracted, especially if you’re just getting back into exercising. To lengthen your muscles and ensure that blood flows to the areas that you’ve worked, take the time to stretch before calling it quits. Build an extra 10 minutes into your workout time so that you get the chance. Maybe that means bumping up your alarm by 10 minutes. It’s terrible, I know, but the benefits are worth it. Not only will you feel less like a zombie the next day, you’ll increase your flexibility and prevent injuries caused by muscle imbalances. Plus, what’s the point of exercising if you’re not going to do it right?
When stretching, aim for a 30- to 60-second hold on each muscle and aim to stretch your major muscles: calves, quadriceps, hips, back, shoulders, chest, neck. That may sound like a lot, so if you’re pressed for time, consider the type of exercises that you just completed. What muscles did you exert? Be sure to think about the minor muscles that you worked as well. Did the shoulder-press machine work only your shoulders, or did it also work your upper-back and neck muscles?
If you’re groaning in pain because you didn’t do any of that good-for-you stretching stuff yesterday, don’t fret. There’s still hope to feel alive again.
Bring out the best friend of elite athletes, gym gurus and now you: the foam roller. You might be thinking, “What the heck is a foam roller?” Well, like it sounds, it’s a tube of foam that you roll your body over. You might’ve seen one piled in the corner of the gym with all of the other neglected equipment that no one knows how to use. You might’ve thought that it looked like a giant eraser or a strange dog toy. But, it has a name, and it has a use.
Basically, you rub your sore muscles all over that thing.
Warning: Your eyes may water; you may cry out in pain. You will be beyond surprised at how tender your muscles were until you met this demonic tube, but eventually it will be your angel.Think about what it feels like when you scrape your knee falling off of your bike and are trying to rub ointment onto the inflamed skin. You wince at the slightest pressure from your fingertip, but once the ointment is on, you sigh with relief. Unfortunately, foam rolling is not quite so instantaneous. It takes about five to eight back-and-forth rolls until your muscles loosen up and your eyes stop watering, but then you’ll stand up and feel lighter; you will sigh with relief.
Stretching is essential to your cool-down routine. Without it, there’s no gradual return to your normal inactive state, and there’s no chance that you’ll stay injury free for long. But remember, foam rolling is what tops off your stretching. It loosens you up even more, working out the knots in your muscles. It gets what you missed from stretching alone and prepares your muscles for the intense workouts to come (they’re coming, right?!).
If you don’t have time to add foam rolling into your cool-down routine, save it for later in the day. A foam roller costs approximately $20 to $60 depending on the color, size and brand. The darker the color, the firmer the foam, and the more pain you may feel at first. If you’re new to the accessory, I’d suggest a lighter color (it’s cheaper, too). Regardless of the price, once you’ve spent the money, you have an in-house massager. Not a bad investment, right? So please, don’t cheap out of buying one because your muscles will thank you.
They’ll thank you when you get out of bed tomorrow; they’ll thank you when you walk down the stairs tomorrow; they’ll thank you when you squat down onto the toilet tomorrow.
If you’ve made it this far through the article and have found no application to your life, I’m assuming it’s because you don’t exercise. If that’s the case, forget all the stretching and foam rolling nonsense and just get moving! Walk, run, skip, jump, dance … crawl. Please, do something. Your body and life depend on it, so don’t cheap out on them.
All a workout costs is time.